Article written by Paul Magnuson, our Banting Buddies coach in Pretoria.
We often struggle with eating behaviours as much as food choices.
It may be helpful to consider the things that stimulate us to eat as falling broadly into two camps. I will deal with each in turn. This article should help you to identify the reasons why you eat (hungry or not) and once you have figured this out, you will more effectively avoid the reasons that don’t serve you or your weight loss goals.
STIMULUS #1: THE PHYSIOLOGY OF HUNGER
The most obvious stimulus for eating is hunger. Hunger is about fuel, for energy. It really is that simple. When the body begins to run out of fuel to produce energy, it alerts you to that fact. This alert is hunger. Hunger is a very basic, and very powerful driver of behaviour. Resistance is, ultimately, futile. Failure to respond to the impulse to find and consume food will result in the body initiating emergency procedures to prolong life until you eat. These procedures start off with slowing or stopping non-essential functions. You are likely to experience a significant decrease in the desire for physical activity, and may begin to feel cold as the body reduces heat production in skeletal muscles. Over time, continually ignoring hunger will result in a significant decrease in the body’s metabolic rate (fuel consumption). Ultimately, the body will even begin to catabolise (break down and burn) living tissue.
This final stage is hopefully far beyond what any of us will ever experience. But a slowed metabolic rate is a definite possibility if we try too hard to lose weight. This is the single greatest reason why most diets are not sustainable over time – the return to a “normal” eating pattern ends up supplying vastly more energy than what the body requires after it has reduced its fuel consumption in response to a low-energy diet. This is why so many people find that the weight comes back, with interest. Does this make sense? It is critical to understand this. If you have not yet watched Dr Jason Fung’s aetiology of obesity, part 1 of 6, schedule an hour to do so.
It is, therefore, most unwise to try to conquer hunger through willpower. There is a far better way of addressing hunger; this is the advantage of low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets. This is addressed below.
Most tissues in the body are able to burn either glucose or fuels derived from fat (fatty acids and/or ketone bodies) – let’s just say glucose and fat for simplicity. Switching from one to the other should be a simple, seamless and immediate process. The switch-over is based on the respective availability of glucose and fat and is controlled by several metabolic hormones.
The most important of these hormones (for purposes of this discussion) is insulin. Most of us know that insulin has something to do with blood sugar. It certainly is important in that role, but its main function is switching on and off the various processes that control the burning and storage of the two kinds of fuel – glucose and fat. The body tries to maintain a very low level of glucose in the blood at any time. Whenever glucose rises above this baseline level, insulin is released by the pancreas. This forces the “multi-fuel” tissues to burn glucose only, and prevents the release of fat from long-term fuel stores – your wobbly bits. As excess glucose is removed from circulation through being burned or stored, the pancreas should stop releasing insulin. Insulin levels should drop. And the inhibitory effects of insulin on fat release and metabolism should stop. This should allow the body to switch over from glucose metabolism to fat metabolism.
Here’s the key point of all of this: if the switch-over occurs seamlessly as it is supposed to, the body does not run out of fuel. It just changes from one type of fuel to another. So you do not experience hunger, or at least not to any significant extent. Real hunger should only set in as fat stores begin to be depleted.
But many people have become resistant to the effects of insulin and require more to be released to clear excess glucose from circulation. It may be helpful to think of the development of insulin-resistance as analogous to noise-induced deafness. Over time, too much noise can cause deafness; deafness requires greater amplification of sound for it to be understood; the amplified sound can cause further deafness. In the same way, too much glucose requires abnormal insulin secretion; tissues that are supposed to “listen” to insulin become “deafened”, requiring more and more insulin over time to produce the same result.
The key problem with insulin-resistance is that insulin typically remains in circulation after excess glucose has been cleared – sometimes even hours after excess glucose has been removed from circulation. Until insulin levels drop again, the insulin continues to prevent fat metabolism (fat release and burning). So you run out of fuel. You have no glucose available as fuel, but you cannot switch to fat. So your tissues begin to starve. And your body alerts you to that fact — you experience hunger.
So, as much as we may think that well-padded people have no right to feel hungry, this is simply not true. On the (safe) assumption that you are overweight because you are insulin-resistant, you probably experience real hunger in much the same way as someone who is grossly undernourished. You almost certainly experience it more than the slender person who can eat anything without putting on weight and who accuses you of sloth and gluttony – as long as that person has anything approaching normal body fat levels, they very seldom, if ever experience gnawing hunger.
The takeaway message is that you often eat because you are really, genuinely hungry.
In case you are still wondering about why LCHF diets work better than energy-restricted diets, it is because the little extra fat in your diet provides the energy you need without increasing glucose and therefore insulin levels. It therefore prevents hunger and prevents any metabolic slow-down. The little extra fat in the diet therefore enables you to release and burn stored body fat. This is why Banting is so much more effective and sustainable than “willpower” diets.
STIMULUS #2: PSYCHOLOGY
I’m almost too scared to ask you why else you eat. This is simply because your first response is likely to be something like “for comfort” or “for emotional reasons”. While probably true, it is no truer than many other reasons, including:
- Because it’s breakfast/tea/lunch/dinner time;
- Because it would be rude not to;
- Because Mom always wants me to finish my plate;
- Because the host always goes to so much trouble to cook my favourite;
- Because everyone always has popcorn and a soda at the movies;
- Because it’s free;
- Because it looks, and smells fantastic, and I’m sure it will taste fantastic too;
- Because I’m bored, frustrated or stressed;
- Because I shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach.
There are probably many more.
Were you to list and rank your reasons, I would be surprised to find comfort/emotion anywhere near the top. My problem with the comfort/emotion reasons is that we have so often been blamed for our weight that we actually start blaming ourselves too. We then don’t think about this any further.
We don’t think, for example, about the implications of our being social animals (technically “semi-social”). As such, we are programmed to get along with the rest of our packs. The rules for eating are an important aspect of social behaviour – signifying such critical things as belonging to, and even hierarchy within the pack. Complying with these rules is fundamental to our being human, and we ignore them at our peril.
I say “packs” above because unlike other social animals, any single human being typically functions in multiple packs during the course of the day. To get along, and to qualify for the benefits of membership in good standing, the juvenile male lion need only comply with the rule about giving precedence to dominant members at the kill once every few days, because the pack will only hunt, kill and eat every few days. But what about the mother who needs to get herself and her family ready in the morning, then goes to work where she meets clients and celebrates colleagues’ birthdays, then does the extramural activity pickups of hungry children in the afternoon, then prepares and serves dinner before perhaps the art workshop in the evening, and then still schlepps the family to visit the in-laws over the weekend? How many of these situations “require” stereotypical patterns of eating? Is it reasonable to suppose that she may over-eat primarily because she is a weak-willed, emotional eater? Seriously?
TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
I have described the physiological and psychological stimuli as though they were independent of one another. In fact, this is a gross oversimplification. Physiology and psychology are not two separate physical realities – they are merely two intellectual models for describing how one, integrated organism functions. A good example of how they influence each other is the role of a hormone called cortisol.
Cortisol is often called the stress hormone. In some ways it is similar to another hormone that is more familiar to most of us, called adrenaline. Both adrenaline and cortisol are released by the adrenal glands in response to stressful situations. Both prepare the body for “flight-or-fight”: to escape from or to overcome physical danger. Adrenaline enables the body for a very short-term response – a few seconds of almost superhuman performance. Cortisol prepares the body to respond continuously over a much longer period. Because it is important to be able to think clearly and respond appropriately to potential danger, one of cortisol’s functions is to ensure an enhanced supply of fuel to those parts of the nervous system that can only burn glucose. Among other things, it therefore causes the liver to manufacture glucose, and increases blood pressure to ensure optimal distribution of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. There is also good evidence that it influences your choice of foods, making you crave more carbohydrates and more energy-dense foods. The notion of “comfort food” therefore has a sound basis in physiology, despite our regarding it as primarily psychological.
MANAGING THE STIMULI
Does any of this help you to recognise why you eat? I suggest listing some of your reasons in two columns – on the left list those reasons you cannot reasonably control, and on the right those you believe you can.
Make sure that “hunger” is in the right-hand (controllable factors) column. Re-read or watch this if you are not sure why. This is the most important thing to achieve – to manage insulin levels by managing carbohydrates in the diet. Until this is squared away, you are likely to do more harm than good by trying to lose weight by reducing energy intake.
Revisit this list again only after you are sure you have been successful in managing carbohydrate intake for a week or so. You should find by then that your desire to eat has diminished significantly.
Then begin to develop tactics for dealing with the other factors in the right-hand column. Not being hungry will already help a lot. Being honest about being on a diet works in social situations, as does ensuring that you have healthy food readily on hand. Use a support group. Find constructive ways of coping with stress, be it walking the dog, socialising with other Banters, watching the rest of Jason Fung’s videos, meditation, prayer or James Altucher’s “Daily Practice.”
But above all, stop blaming yourself as this only increases your stress levels. You will do far better by learning to become an even better cook than you already are. Enjoy life. Eat for pleasure. And make great food your medicine!